John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How Would I Find A Mentor?

John N. Gardner

I am writing this several days after attending the 32nd annual First-Year Experience Conference. During that event several educators raised the point with me about the importance of mentoring and, more specifically, how does one go about finding a mentor? Sounds like a simple question. Some of us who have naturally fallen into a mentoring process by the good fortune of having someone offer to be a mentor may find it hard to understand why someone would even have to ask how to find a mentor.

While I don’t have any empirical data on this, my experience suggests to me that most of my fellow higher educators if they have been mentored at all, have been in an informal relationship structure and not one that the institution intentionally provided. This is in spite of the fact that there are enough academic studies to justify colleges and universities establishing formal mentoring structures. The evidence is compelling; those organizations that have such have higher employee morale, see less turnover, and more rapid upward employee mobility. And this is particularly important for women and members of other underrepresented groups.

Of course, this also relates to the field of student success where we have long realized the importance of providing at least one significant “other” for every entering college student. This could be an academic advisor, classroom instructor, counselor, or peer mentor. And we know after forty years of looking at the impact of college that the greatest influence on students during the college years is the influence of other students. This would suggest the special importance of students mentoring students—and of having the students you want mentoring students doing that!

That was what really struck Betsy Barefoot and I when we were working on the research study, “Institutions of Excellence” back in 2002.  In our study we had the privilege and pleasure to study the unique approach to the first year at the United States Military Academy, where every first-year student is assigned an upper class mentor. What is particularly unique about this structure is that the mentor, the more advanced student, is held accountable for the performance of the mentee. Just imagine the impact if we could replicate that mentoring model in conventional higher education settings! That would enable us to intentionally teach students how to be responsible as the core learning objective. A colleague of mine, Dr. Michael Siegel, now of Suffolk University, and I wrote a case study of the West Point mentoring model and other elements of their first-year (Plebe) experience, which was published in the 2005 Jossey-Bass book, Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College (Barefoot, Gardner, et al)

When I was teaching the first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina one of our recommended assignments for the students was one that would result in the “mentor paper.” We tasked each student with viewing the first term of college as a period in which success, both immediate and longer term, would be engendered by the selection of a mentor. We discussed why to select one, how to do so, and who might be possible mentors. And then we required the students to submit an end-of-term paper describing the mentoring relationship they had entered and its outcomes to date. I would tell my students if they couldn’t find anyone else, they would be stuck with me in this role. One of the persistent outcomes from University 101 for forty years now is higher retention rates for course participants.  Mentoring may be a factor in this outcome.

Back to the original question: how to find a mentor? One consideration is whether or not to seek one who is also an employee of the same organization that employs you—let’s call this an internal mentor. There are pros and cons to that. The pros: this person will know the organization well and the other players. Cons: there are things you ideally might want to share but may not wish to divulge. An additional consideration there would be whether to find a person in the immediate unit in which you are appointed or another unit in the institution but not in your reporting lines. Another possibility, of course, is to select someone in a comparable specialty but not employed at the same institution. A further alternative would be to select somebody whose personhood and accomplishments you admire but is of some entirely different profession. I think there should be some common features to any of these types of individuals, including:

  • they are at least a half to full generation older than you
  • they have core values that are consistent with your own
  • they have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy
  • they have shown a pronounced inclination to the sponsorship of others
  • they have accomplished themselves in ways that you respect, and are perhaps replicable by you
  • they are approachable
  • you have heard them speak about someone who mentored them

For reasons I do not fully understand, I think people feel awkward about asking someone to accept them in a mentor/mentee relationship. Perhaps the concern is that the person being asked may think there is something less than fully desirable about the person asking because the request reveals that no one has yet adopted the person as a mentee. Personally, I think that reaction is highly unlikely. Instead of anticipating that presenting such a request would be potentially embarrassing, I think a more appropriate and accurate way of looking at this is to view it as extending a very high compliment to the person being asked. This doesn’t exactly happen every day. And a person who has accomplished significantly to deserve being a mentor will know how to react and put the requestor at ease. One of any mentor’s qualities should be empathy and there is likelihood the mentor made a similar request some time previously of someone else, and then benefited significantly from that mentorship.

I entitled this piece “How would I find a mentor?” I never answered that question with respect to myself. My first mentor, my first President at the University of South Carolina, found me. He adopted me. I never had to ask him. But I certainly did thank him and honor him. He made a death bed request of me not to ever give up my work on the first year. And I am honoring that today some 32 years later. My next mentor was my Dean. And he adopted me too. I also had a fellow student mentor when I was in college, who was a year ahead of me. Later in our lives, we reversed roles and I mentored him. I could go on. I have had a long list of mentors and I never asked one of them. But I realize I am different in this regard. So if you don’t have one, I urge you to become more intentional about this and ask someone. As I used to tell my students when I was teaching them the principles of public speaking, about which they were terrified: “what is the worst thing that could happen to you if this doesn’t go well?” Asking someone to mentor you should be relatively low stakes if you don’t receive the desired outcome… and potentially high stakes if you do.

Remembering the Power of Mentoring

November 30, 2011John N. GardnerMentoring2
John Gardner

So often in life we have no idea what is going on simultaneously with whatever we may be experiencing on any given day. The day after Thanksgiving is such a moment for me. On that day I drove down from my home in Brevard, North Carolina, with my wife and sister, to visit my two sons and their families, in Lexington, South Carolina, my home county for 30 years when I worked for the University of South Carolina. A lovely day was had by all. But the next day I learned that on the day before one of my most powerful mentors had died, also in the central South Carolina environs, while I was having a most relaxing day just a few miles away.

I refer to my academic dean for the period 1972-1983, when I rose through the ranks from a brand new Assistant Professor to full Professor. It was also during this period when my Dean unselfishly agreed to release me 50% time to take on my career changing role of Director of University 101. My Dean was Harry E. “Sid” Varney, and I owe much of my subsequent career success to him and his great influence on my development. So I have spent the rest of Thanksgiving weekend thinking about the power of mentoring, and his mentoring in particular. Those of us now in positions of power need to remind ourselves every day of the obligation to mentor others—every day, every opportunity.

In my case, I worked with and for this dean for the period when I was ages 28-39. My career could have gone any number of directions. I know that I was consciously looking for mentors. I will use this blog to record some of his influences, my recollections of what he taught me, that I have carried on in my own career.

·         Sid was fond of saying “John, you missed a perfect opportunity to keep your mouth shut”, but he never attempted to make me shut it before opening. Now I try to treat everyone who works for me as if they had tenure, even though they don’t.

·         Sid had not a trace of the pompous pretentiousness that some of us academics display to and about others who are less educated—which means most of the population that happen to pay our salaries.

·         Sid had far greater respect than I did for intercollegiate athletics and saw it as a powerful track for upward social mobility for the nation’s poor. His life had personified this as he moved from an inauspicious background in Pennsylvania lacking in privilege to an All-American high achieving athlete status at UNC Chapel Hill in not one but two sports: football and baseball, in the late 1940’s.

·         Sid had almost an equal sympathy for the children of the privileged who struggled to live up their parents’ expectations that they achieve on equal levels. So for years he ran a kind of shadow advising center for many of the children of the state’s elite. And many of these kids ended up getting assigned to his most sympathetic faculty, people like me, also a child of the privileged.

·         Sid taught me the power of quiet practice of a political value set, speaking rarely in public about his own politics, a closet liberal, if there ever was one. He didn’t wear his liberalism on his sleeves as I did (and do), but he was one of only a handful of voters I knew who would admit he voted for George McGovern in 1972. He was able to work with a much broader range of South Carolina leaders than I was by staying under the radar.

·         Unlike the guy whom pundits are predicting will become the Republican nominee for the Presidency this year, Sid not only had no hair, he had a consistent ideology and philosophy for his work and life. Every day. And it never changed. There was not a hint of opportunism or “idea du jour” in this man. Every day he had one mantra: do what is best for the little guy, the less powerful, privileged and educated; do what is best for the people who pay our salaries; do what is best for the people of South Carolina; the University is theirs not ours; what matters most is using the University to extend educational opportunity to as many people as possible.

·         I had never encountered anybody who seemed to derive such great pleasure from helping advance others, his former football players, students, colleagues, employees, and, of course, his wife and two sons. I observed him on countless occasions doing something to help somebody get a job. I had never seen anybody before, or since, have so much fun helping people get jobs. He deeply understood what today’s right wingers do not: the importance of jobs for all. That all work lends dignity. That most people don’t want handouts. They just want meaningful work. That the role of government (e.g. public universities) is to enhance employment opportunities and literally to do everything possible to help their students get jobs. I never saw any other higher educator work harder to get people jobs.

·         And when he wasn’t helping somebody get a job, he was helping somebody get awarded, rewarded, promoted, paid more money, advanced, in a myriad of other socially redeeming ways, all legal. I watched carefully and absorbed the enormous gratification I saw he derived from advancing others. And today it is definitely one of my greatest pleasures.

·         Sid never wanted anyone else working for him that someone else wouldn’t want working for them. So when it came time to move on, I saw him treat others as he would have wanted to be treated himself. He would help them move on even if it cost him and his unit dearly. When it came to his choosing what was best for his unit or his employees’ individual careers, he always chose what was best for them. I had never seen before such unselfishness.
·         The man was a master of affirmation. He always had the time to give others a stroke, and usually in a short, personal, handwritten note. This is particularly lacking now in the era of e-mail communication, let alone texting.

·         He taught me: “John, praise in public, and criticize in private.”

·         He took me out behind the woodshed one day because he learned I sent one of his fellow deans a memorandum on which I had not copied him. I had committed a cardinal sin: I had failed to keep my boss informed about communications I was having with his peers. I never made that mistake again.

·         Sid was always teaching me, for better or worse. He didn’t have to work at it. It was just who he was. He was my mentor, 24/7. And long after I moved on from his employ, he kept reaching out to me, letting me know he was following my career with respect and support. The job of a mentor is never done. Mentees never outgrow their need for mentoring.

·         I learned from Sid that the rest of my life should be spent in repaying the gift.